Antonio Banderas is one of Spain’s most recognisable actors, with roles in everything from The Mask of Zorro and Desperado to Evita and The Skin I Live In. This year, though, could mark his first ever award, as he enters Emmy-friendly territory with National Geographic’s Genius. The second season of the anthology that profiles famous minds of history, he follows in the footsteps of Golden Globe-nominated Geoffrey Rush as Einstein. Banderas’ genius? None other than Pablo Picasso.
It’s the kind of role that major movie biopics are made of, and part of the pleasure of Genius lies in getting the additional time to appreciate the skill involved. Banderas is mesmerising as the painter, who is in his older years, sporting silver parted hair, a passionate stance against the Nazis and an even stronger passion for the ladies. We see him losing his inspiration to paint, as he becomes sick of his partner, Dora (the excellent Samantha Colley), and even his mistress, Marie-Therese (Poppy Delevingne). They squabble, while he finds his eye caught by Geneviève Aliquot (Stéphane Caillard), the friend of Françoise Gilot (Clémence Poésy), his future lover.
“You’re going to paint her, aren’t you?” accuses Dora, wearily, with all the familiarity of a prized treasure who knows she’s about to replaced on the easel. Picasso’s hunger for the fairer sex is what ends up underpinning the whole programme, tying together the ageing painter and the boy Pablo in his formative years. That’s perhaps no shock, because it allows the series to dial up its sex appeal, but what does surprise is just how much this is a portrait of the artist as a young man as well as old.
Alex Rich is a compelling presence as the young Picasso, who is idealistically dreaming of fame, moving from Malaga to Barcelona with brushes in his eyes. He rebukes the notion that he should imitate more established painters to get success, with the kind of stubborn pride that Banderas continues to display. And he soon dives into the world of turn-of-the-century bedrooms, losing his virginity and finding inspiration in painting the woman almost immediately afterwards.
It’s in these kind of scenarios that the programme’s script veers towards on-the-nose dialogue and slightly clunky exchanges. But the writers have a more elegant frame to help keep their scribbles inside the lines, jumping between old Pablo refusing to flee Paris mid-war and young Pablo visiting the French capital for the first time.
The period, too, is handsomely rendered, from the paintings themselves to Montmartre bursting with glossy production values – the cinematic depiction of a Nazi strike decades later also carries a powerful weight. With episodes zipping between such milestone events at an impressive pace, the result is lavishly detailed and compelling in its wide scope, balancing out cheesy moments with classy performances. It’s entirely fitting that the whole thing should come to life when we glimpse his masterpiece, Guernica – a vivid sign of the promise the whole 10 episodes hold. It might not clean up at the Emmys, but Genius is an enjoyable showcase for two Spanish legends, and that, in itself, is a portrait worth admiring.
Genius is available on National Geographic, which you can watch on Sky, Virgin Media, BT TV, TalkTalk TV. Don’t have pay-TV? You can also watch it online legally live and on-demand with streaming service TVPlayer, which offers premium channels such as Syfy, Comedy Central, History HD, Discovery Channel, Crime + Investigation, Eurosport 1 and 2 and National Geographic, as part of a £5.99 PLUS Lite Pack – with no monthly contract.